All posts by Rory O'Neill

Asbestos figures show a devastating legacy


Europe is in the midst of an asbestos disease epidemic – and it is far worse than previously thought. A new report has put deaths in the European Union caused by exposure to asbestos at three times previous estimates. And the UK tops the fatalities list.

Latest asbestos mortality figures
, published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in October 2015, have confirmed that the asbestos cancer mesothelioma claims over 2,500 lives in Great Britain each year and the toll is rising.

The figures followed an Office for National Statistics (ONS) breakdown of deaths by location in England and Wales, published in August 2015, that analysed the rate of deaths from mesothelioma in local authority areas between 2010 and 2014. Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria had the highest rate at 14.3 fatalities per 100,000 people. South Tyneside (11.1), North Tyneside (10.9), Fareham (10.0) and Hartlepool (8.7) completed the top five, with Newcastle upon Tyne, Portsmouth and Southampton closely behind.

A total of 11,011 deaths where mesothelioma was found to be an underlying cause were recorded in England and Wales across the four-year period analysed, with the number of fatalities increasing every year.

“This research truly highlights the devastating impact that asbestos has had on so many lives, with more than 11,000 people passing away as a result of mesothelioma in the past four years alone,” said asbestos compensation specialist Adrian Budgen, a partner at the law firm Irwin Mitchell. He added the findings highlighted the “devastating impact” of asbestos exposures. “The suggestion that the number of people killed by this terrible cancer every year is increasing is a massive concern,” he said. “Sadly many estimates do indicate that this figure has not yet peaked and will only increase in coming years.

“We are now seeing a growing number of people come forward seeking help regarding exposure they believe occurred in public buildings, such as hospitals and schools, where the material may have been present.”

Across Great Britain, two Scottish authorities feature in the top 20 list for mesothelioma deaths. West Dunbarton UA comes second and Inverclyde 12th.

The asbestos disease crisis is a Europe-wide phenomenon. A report published in September 2015 concluded over 47,000 people in the European Union are dying of asbestos related conditions each year with the UK topping the fatalities list. ‘Eliminating occupational cancer in Europe’, published by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), puts deaths caused by exposure to asbestos at three times previous estimates.

An international review published in 2014 concluded the “mesothelioma epidemic does not show signs of attenuation. The lack of data for a large majority of the world does not allow that the consciousness of the risks related to asbestos exposure is reached.”


Korean giant Hynix agrees to compensate electronics workers

Korean electronics firm SK Hynix has agreed to provide compensation to current and former semiconductor factory workers, including those of its subcontractors, who may be suffering from a range of occupational diseases including cancer.

The company said it would accept “immediately” the recommendation of an industrial and public health review committee that conducted a year-long inspection of Hynix semiconductor workplaces.

The committee, headed by Ajou University preventive medicine professor Jang Jae-yeon, announced its findings at a press conference in Seoul on 25 November 2015. Its report recommended that workers suffering a range of conditions should be compensated by the firm, even though it accepted establishing the causal relationship between the semiconductor working environment and suspected occupational diseases was “difficult to prove.”

The committee was formed in the wake of a critical 2014 report by the Hankyoreh newspaper. In response, a team of seven outside independent experts was formed in October 2014 to conduct on-site inspections. National Health Insurance Service data showed male and female workers had respectively thyroid cancer rates 2.6 and 1.3 times the average for all workers, while women showed higher-than-average rates of miscarriage (1.3 times) and bladder cancer (1.1 times).

Professor Jang said: “We would need to track and manage incidence rates for a period of ten to twenty years, and the problem there is that people couldn’t get compensation if we judged it strictly by causation.” He added: “That’s why we are proposing a comprehensive support and compensation system that provides the basic level needed for patients whose health has been impaired to treat their conditions and maintain everyday life.”

The committee’s recommendations, agreed by the company, indicated all cases of cancer, miscarriage, and rare diseases suspected of even a slight association with work in the semiconductor industry should be included. “The committee’s determination was that if you contracted cancer while working somewhere, society should not just ignore that,” Jang said.

SK Hynix responded by saying it would “implement support and compensation for all patients with suspected [occupational disease] conditions in according with our company’s social role.”

Fracking firm disputes known fracking risks

A major fracking firm has gone on the offensive, attacking claims by a UK campaign group that there are potentially serious occupational and environmental risks associated with the controversial process.

Cuadrilla hit out after a leaflet from the campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE) highlighted warnings, many made by official US government agencies, about the dangers posed by the toxic chemicals and crystalline silica used in large volumes in fracking operations.

Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, said the FoE claims about chemical risks were “irresponsible and shameful”. The firm said it was referring the “wilfully misleading” leaflet to the Charity Commission, Advertising Standards Authority and the Fundraising Standards Board.

The company picked out FoE references to crystalline silica and polyacrylamide for particular attention. FoE had identified  official cancer and lung disease warnings linked to respirable crystalline silica exposure in fracking workers in the US. It noted polyacrylamide, also used in fracking operations, has been identified by authorities as a potential source of groundwater contamination with acrylamide, a probable carcinogen.

A Cuadrilla spokesperson said: “As Friends of the Earth is well aware, the UK Environment Agency does not permit the use of ‘a toxic cocktail of chemicals’ in fracking fluid for use in the UK and, in fact, only permits fracking fluid that it has assessed and tested as non-hazardous to groundwater.”

FoE noted there had been a spate of recent stories “that seem designed to undermine the credibility of those campaigning to stop fracking. It’s no surprise to see this happening, as the anti-fracking movement really has been getting in the way of government and industry plans.” FoE added the “risk to the health and safety of workers should be properly investigated, not made a mockery of.”

The stories critical of FoE’s approach, included articles in The Times and on the BBC website citing Cuadrilla, prompted a group of top academics to back publicly FoE’s stance on the dangers posed by fracking.

A letter signed by occupational and environmental health specialists from the UK, US, Italy and Australia, notes: “It would be folly not to learn from the US experience of fracking. The refrain in the UK that, if properly regulated, fracking can be performed with no significant risk to health assumes that the risks have been properly assessed and the regulatory system is robust. Neither is true.”

It warns: “Fracking without question involves exposure to substances linked to cancer, asthma and other health impacts. It is not scaremongering to say so.”



Deadly UK silica exposures are not being controlled

Companies are continuing to expose workers to excessive levels of silica dust, which can cause deadly cancers and lung diseases, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has admitted.

HSE, the official UK safety regulator, urged the stone industry to do more to protect workers’ health after an inspection initiative in the south of England found a failure to control the potentially lethal dust was commonplace. HSE inspectors visited 60 stone businesses, including work surface manufacturers, stonemasons and monumental masons, in the period from June to September 2015.

The initiative, supported by trade association, Stone Federation Great Britain, visited both federation members and non-members. HSE found serious breaches at over half (35) of the premises that were visited, with inadequate control of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) one of the “common areas of concern… found throughout the initiative”. It issued four prohibition notices, 54 improvement notices and provided verbal advice to others. HSE told Hazards magazine that most of its enforcement action – three of the four prohibition notices and 36 of the 54 improvement notices – related to a failure to control silica exposures.

HSE said “a number of businesses” were unaware that in 2006 the workplace exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica was revised from 0.3 mg/m3 to 0.1mg/m3, requiring more stringent controls. In a clarification to Hazards magazine, the watchdog said “at least 7” of the 60 businesses were unaware of the tighter standard, “however feedback was not sought from all inspectors on this point.”

The new information from HSE adds to concerns about the effectiveness of official efforts to address the workplace silica hazard.

Last year, HSE was accused of leaving workers at double jeopardy from the cancer-causing, lung scarring dust. A report in the workers’ safety magazine Hazards criticised HSE for resisting a union-backed call for it to halve the current 0.1mg/m3 exposure limit for the common workplace dust. And it said the government-imposed, hands-off, HSE enforcement policy combined with swingeing resource cuts mean even the current “deadly” standard is not being enforced effectively.

The report concluded that HSE’s strategy to address the long-established risks has not worked. A 2009 baseline study by HSE found that all the major industries with a potential for high silica exposures, including the stone industry, were failing to control the risks effectively.

HSE campaigns over many years have failed to increase awareness of silica risks or led to improvements in workplace conditions.


Fukushima worker to get radiation cancer payout

The authorities in Japan have acknowledged that a worker involved in clean-up work at the Fukushima nuclear plant may have developed cancer as a result.

Officials say the man will be entitled to compensation for work-related illness, in the first cancer case linked to the Fukushima plant meltdown. The man, aged 41, is suffering from leukaemia. The nuclear plant was badly damaged in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March 2011. The man worked at the damaged plant from October 2012 to December 2013, and was exposed to a total of 19.8 millisieverts of radiation during that period.

The BBC reports this is nearly four times the annual dose allowed for nuclear workers in Japan but is less than half the amount US nuclear workers can be exposed to in a single year. The man will receive compensation to cover medical costs and lost income, government officials said. “While the causal link between his exposure to radiation and his illness is unclear, we certified him from the standpoint of worker compensation,” a health ministry official said.

Three other Fukushima workers are waiting to have their cancer cases assessed. Former plant manager Masao Yoshida died of oesophageal cancer in 2013 – but plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) denied his death was related to the 2011 meltdown, saying the cancer would have taken several more years to develop.

Tepco said it could not comment on the decision to approve the worker’s compensation claim. “We would like to offer our condolences to the worker,” a Tepco spokesperson said. “We will continue to reduce the radiation dose of the working environment and manage thoroughly workers’ exposure to radiation.” More than 45,000 people have worked on the clean-up at the Fukushima plant.

TUC backs MPs’ call for asbestos removal

The TUC has demanded immediate action after MPs accused the UK government of complacency on the risks of asbestos in buildings and called for an asbestos eradication law. The asbestos crisis: why Britain needs a new law was published in October by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health. Launching the report, group chair and Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery said the government is being “far too complacent about asbestos.”

Eliminating occupational cancer worldwide

A new working paper from the European trade union research body ETUI presents arguments for a stronger policy to eradicate occupational cancer in Europe and globally. Eliminating occupational cancer in Europe and globally notes cancer is a major public health concern all over the world – and points to an increasing awareness of the role of working conditions as a major cause of social inequalities associated with the disease.

The working paper present a new estimate the burden of occupational cancer, noting the condition is responsible for 666,000 deaths worldwide each year, 102,500 of these in the EU alone. The UK figure is put at 13,330 occupational cancer deaths a year, over 66 per cent higher than the Health and Safety Executive’s estimate.

It also summarises basic prevention principles. It starts from a position that occupational cancers are preventable and that prevention could save many workers’ lives and contribute considerably to the public health.

Factors linked to occupational cancer in the working paper include dusts, in particular asbestos and silica dust, diesel engine exhaust, shift and night work of women, external tobacco smoke at workplaces, poly aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), exposure to hazardous substances in welding and painting work, radon in the workplace, mineral oils and ionising radiation. Asbestos remains the top workplace cancer killer.


New estimate of Europe’s soaring asbestos toll

Over 47,000 people in the European Union are dying of asbestos related conditions each year with the UK topping the fatalities list, a new report has concluded.

Eliminating occupational cancer in Europe, published on 29 September 2015  by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), puts deaths caused by exposure to asbestos at three times previous estimates. It indicates the real toll is higher still, as certain asbestos related cancers are excluded from the calculation, as are those caused by environmental and domestic exposures.

The report has led to calls from asbestos victims’ advocacy groups for a renewed effort to stem the future toll. Laurie Kazan-Allen, coordinator of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, said: “Time and again, civil society groups have pressed the European Commission and European Union to take coordinated and decisive action on the asbestos hazard. The political will to engage with this crisis has been sorely lacking.”

She added: “In the light of the new data, the authorities should make good on their promise to constitute a European Asbestos Taskforce as a matter of utmost urgency.”

Earlier this year, the UK TUC called for the UK government to introduce an asbestos eradication law, a call that has been supported by unions and others. Australian asbestos eradication legislation took effect in June 2013.


Diesel fumes are putting UK workers at risk

Diesel exhaust fumes on Britain’s streets are putting workers at risk of serious and potentially deadly health conditions, the union GMB has warned.

The union’s analysis of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels – a key diesel exhaust component – is based on data from 110 monitoring stations across the UK for 2015. GMB points to 18 locations where levels exceeded the European Union’s 40 micrograms per cubic metre recommended limit.

The union says these excessive levels present a health risk to members working on the roadside, noting “street cleaners, refuse workers, parking enforcement staff, utility workers, police community support workers and others are particularly exposed to such pollutants.” Studies have also shown professional drivers can also be at risk, as gaseous vehicle pollutants can become concentrated in their cabs.

As well as causing and exacerbating existing respiratory diseases and being linked to heart problems, exposure to diesel exhaust  is an established cause of cancer in humans, with a recent study suggesting it could account for 5 per cent of lung cancer deaths in the UK.



Plan for smoke-free prisons a union victory

A UK government announcement that smoking will be banned in all prisons in Wales and four in south-west England from next year has been hailed as a ‘victory for health and safety’ by the prison officers’ union POA. The phased roll-out, which will eventually see all jails in England and Wales go smoke-free, will  first see smoking barred inside buildings at all open prisons in England and Wales from November 2015.

PJ McParlin, national chair of the POA, said: “This is a crucial victory for health and safety in the workplace for prison officers. Prison officers have been denied the basic protections from second-hand smoke that other workers have had for almost a decade. We have repeatedly raised at every level of the prison service our members unnecessary exposure to a known health risk and now at last vital workplace protection is to be set in place.”

Passive (or ‘secondhand’) smoking is linked to higher rates of cancer (and is a top rated IARC group 1 carcinogen), heart disease and other health conditions.